Planet-hunting is yet another project that citizen scientists have helped move forward. Image: Flickr / sezzles / CC-BY

The Planet Hunters project, launched in December, asks for web users’ help in analyzing potentially habitable planets. Now, Yale and the Planet Hunters have announced the discovery of exoplanets that the Kepler team will be looking further into.

The Planet Hunters project

Planet Hunters is a crowd-sourced project that takes publicly available information from the Kepler project and puts it online. By watching for changes in the brightness of stars over time, Planet Hunters identify potential exoplanets and forward the information to the Kepler team. Planet Hunters is one part of a project called Zooniverse, a collection of projects in need of so-called “Citizen Science” individuals to help with the research.

Identifying new planets

The process of identifying potentially new planets is difficult. Satellite images of star systems are analyzed, looking for slight decreases in the brightness of a star on a regular basis. The slight darkening of a star indicates that a planet or other celestial body may be passing between the star and the telescope or satellite. Computer systems are not always very accurate at identifying this darkening, because the pattern-matching and intuition that humans are good at is not always the same as computer-based pattern matching.

The process of identifying a planet

The dip in light output that Planet Hunters searches for is the first step in identifying a new exoplanet. Exoplanets are, in the most general sense, any planet outside the current solar system. Identifying what, exactly, is a planet is more difficult. The mass, composition and orbit must be identified before it can be deemed a planet. And something is called a “planet” it is not necessarily in the “habitable zone” – the combination of the right distance from the sun, with an atmosphere and the potential for water. With the help of the Planet Hunters team, however, the Kepler project has identified at least one potentially habitable exoplanet.



New Haven EDHAT:
Kepler Project:
Planet Hunters:
Wikipedia Extrasolar Planet:

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